Exit Interviews and What I Learned about Myself

March 2, 2023 Bob Freytag

I am a recovering exit interviewer.

I had a twenty-one-year career in the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force. I also had the privilege of serving as the senior enlisted advisor and force missile technician for the Navy’s Strategic Weapons Safety and Security Program during my last five years of service. I sat on many advisory boards involved with risk management, risk assessment, and risk mitigation. My tour of duty also included spending two and a half years working with a team that conducted research and created policies for extinguishing fires on submarines.

Summing it up, I was a senior person responsible for very sensitive programs. The job came with immense responsibilities and risks. Failure was not an option.

Because of the exceptional impact of safety and security, I set high standards for my people. I drove them hard. My primary focus was on results, not relationships. “Zero accidents and zero incidents” was our guiding principle. I was trained to not make my sailors’ feelings my problems. My job as their leader was to make sure they knew what I expected, train them to do their jobs better than anyone else, and bring them home safely.

Due to my almost exclusive focus on results, I had an impact on the workforce—but not the impact I had intended. Not surprisingly, one sailor after another requested a transfer from my Divisions and Department. So, out of necessity, I became an expert at exit interviews and new hire training.

In hindsight I can see that my behavior at work became toxic and spilled into my home life. It eventually led to the loss of my marriage. I call this part of my life “Bob 1.0.” I’ve changed quite a bit and am now proud to call myself a servant leader.

How I Conducted Exit Interviews

Exit interviews should be a discovery process. You want to find out why a person is leaving and, with those insights, how to prevent the same thing from happening with other people.

But I used exit interviews to assess blame and fault. I only cared about what the other person did to create the situation. Due to my firm belief in my good intentions, I never sought to discover my own contribution to their choice to leave.

Looking back on it now, I can see that my people felt I didn’t trust them—so why would they trust me? They didn’t feel safe enough to share their feelings with me, so what I heard were answers that dodged the truth of my impact on them. In reality, I was the last person who should have been conducting the exit interviews. It really didn’t matter what questions I asked to try and learn what the problems were, because I had not developed the belief in my people that they could share their truth with me.

My people also learned that I was a defensive listener. By example, I taught them to be the same. I could see that there was more behind their answers, but the more I probed, the further they pulled away from me. My questions probably felt like an interrogation. Ironically, had I created trust in the beginning I probably wouldn’t have been doing an exit interview with the person later.

The fact that I was conducting so many exit interviews should have been a huge signal about my leadership. Instead, I took pride in becoming efficient at exit interviews. I even made an exit interview checklist that I printed out and gave to each person requesting a transfer.

When I look back at the person I was, I see that I had almost no positive connection with my people. When I gave them feedback, it was typically negative. I excelled at catching people doing something wrong. I didn't help them feel psychologically safe. I didn’t practice empathy. I believed pushing them to get results was the same thing as showing them I cared. They figured out that I cared about results much more than the relationships that produced those results. I feared poor results would reflect poorly on me. I was leading scared instead of leading with the confidence secure relationships would have produced. 

I was a self-focused leader who avoided discovering how others felt. I steered clear of the soft stuff but forgot that is where the hard truth is. Avoiding feelings-related conversations and connections created compliance at best—and definitely killed commitment.

To put it nicely, I had large expectations and a small leadership tool kit.

Stay Interviews Instead of Exit Interviews

Exit interviews is the wrong business to be in. It's mostly unproductive. The better business to be in as a leader is stay interviews. The key is getting people to share, and the way to do that is by being a servant leader.

To conduct a successful stay interview:

  • Keep the conversation informal. Take notes of what the person shares and use the information to make changes that increase alignment and enable you to help meet people’s needs.
  • Listen, listen, and listen some more. As we say at The Ken Blanchard Companies, “listen to learn.” Try to listen without an agenda. Have some standard questions but let the conversation go where the other person desires. This is about discovering, not defending.
  • Make the interview a routine part of your day and theirs. Don’t wait to put it on a formal schedule like a performance review.  This conversation is too important to put off and much more important than a formal performance review. The stay interview minimizes negative surprises and disappointments that often come up during performance reviews that are not powered by vital conversations throughout the work week.

Meaningful stay interviews don't happen in a vacuum. You need to have a trusting rapport with your people. At Blanchard, we use three team check-in questions to foster open dialogue:

  • What is going well?
  • What are we learning?
  • What needs to change?

I use these questions as a feedback tool. I slow down and seek the truth. Then I use the truth to create commitment and passion in my partnerships. These conversations help prevent quiet quitting or quit-and-stay syndrome. Team members can also use these questions routinely with each other to inform their working relationships.

Results, Relationships, and Empathy

The best leaders know that relationships fuel results. Relationships move at the speed of trust—and what fuels relationships is empathy.

You need to create an environment where people will give truthful answers. Be willing to challenge all that you think you know. Get a grip on your ego and seek the truth. That starts with showing empathy for what your people are feeling. Small talk isn't a little thing—small talk is actually big talk. It shows that you care.

Without an empathetic attitude, you will create a compliance mindset where there is a lack of ownership and accountability. Eventually, you get a cascade effect of resignation because other employees are picking up the slack for the person who isn't doing their own work.

Some leaders say they are too burned out to be empathetic. That is a tremendous mistake. It's short sighted. Knowing someone cares about us is an essential human need. We must change our orientation from self-focused to others-focused.

Our research on Employee Work Passion shows that when people know their leader cares about them, they will do above average work, give more discretionary effort, be more likely to stay, and be more likely to endorse the company as a good place to work. These intentions are fueled by a sense of well-being that comes from empathy and trust in the organization, the job, and the leader.

This is so important, I’ll say it again. The best leaders know that relationships fuel results. Relationships move at the speed of trust and empathy is what fuels relationships. I have found that employee survey results never surprise the well-informed leader. A distracted, multi-tasking leader is a disconnected leader. Help make your people pilfer-proof by showing them you care about what they need in order to do what needs to get done.

When you slow down to show you care, you will create better alignment and connection, which ironically allows the results to speed up.  Results are important, but sustainable results are gold.

I am Bob 2.0 now and have learned that there is a big difference between fixing and serving.  For me, that difference is best understood when you learn the distinction between a self-focused and an others-focused mindset. Great leaders have had a chance to learn about leaders who are others-focused. It is a secret to sustainable success. You are helpful when you serve.

Ultimately, I wish to increase the sense of well-being in others. The lens I choose to look through magnifies the significance of the other person so that their needs become important for me to understand. I choose to serve the needs of others so that they may find fulfillment and success in their work. This creates wonderful stay interviews for me.

About the Author

Bob Freytag

Bob Freytag is a Senior Consulting Partner for Blanchard® with more than 25 years of training and consulting experience in the military, government agencies, and a wide variety of private-sector industries. Bob supports organizations in creating a high-performance and values-aligned culture through leadership development, organizational development, and culture change process consulting.

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